When talking about St. Ambrose University's upcoming spring theatre production, professor and director Corinne Johnson is clear that this will not be a typical performance. "We're going to have to approach this with a lot of sensitivity," she said of the casting process.

And there will need to be a similar sensitivity to the audience. "After each show, we're going to have a talk-back with a psychologist," she said.

In other words, this ain't Oklahoma! It's Paula Vogel's Pulitzer Prize-winning play How I Learned to Drive, a drama that uses the rite of passage of learning to operate a car as a metaphor for sexual abuse. The play will be performed February 22 to 24 at St. Ambrose's Galvin Fine Arts Center.

A psychologist will be present not only at performances but throughout the rehearsal process. "I'm not a therapist, and I don't have those skills," Johnson said. Similarly, the director hopes to avoid giving roles to people who might view the play as therapy instead of just acting.

That St. Ambrose is taking such precautions is a testament to the play's emotional difficulty for both cast and audience. Other schools that have staged the work have recommended such measures.

Johnson said St. Ambrose is always careful to inform its potential audience about a play, but that's especially important with a work as challenging as How I Learned to Drive. "We've always done our best to prepare our audience for what they're going to see," she said. That includes allowing people to check out scripts from the box office and providing a movie-type rating for the play, "so their responses aren't out of surprise."

Surprise is not a common reaction for audiences of Quad Cities theatre, but not because the people who go are well-prepared. While the institutions of higher education attempt edgier fare, most theatre in this area is pretty conventional. Circa '21's winter lineup includes the Nunsense sequel Nuncrackers (through January 5), Jack & The Beanstalk (through December 30), and Footloose (January 16 through March 9), while the Quad-City Music Guild is producing the musical Scrooge (November 21 through December 2). Summer theatre includes productions by Genesius Guild and Countryside Community Theatre.

No doubt, there's certainly a place - and an audience - for light comedies, sunny musicals, and classic dramas, but right now there are few outlets for theatre not squarely in the mainstream.

Troupes such as Ghostlight Theatre, the Unsafe Ensemble, and ETC have attempted some ambitious, heady work over the past decade, but their efforts have been sporadic.

Ghostlight was formed "to produce cutting-edge theatre of a professional quality," said Dino Hayz, one of the organization's three co-founders in 1994. (Hayz said he discontinued his involvement in Ghostlight about a month ago because of time constraints.) "We made a few strides in the types of shows we would do. ... [But] we just lost focus a bit."

That's largely left St. Ambrose and Augustana to carry the torch of thought-provoking theatre.

"Colleges and universities aren't as concerned about money at the box office," explained Jeff Coussens, an associate professor at Augustana College and director of the school's Theatre Arts program. "It's a different process when you're dependent on selling tickets for survival." Augustana productions are subsidized by a budget separate from box office, he said, allowing the theatre department more flexibility.

It's certainly true that a theatre company with an interest in doing more provocative work can't live on box office alone in this market. Even the successful model of Riverside Theatre in Iowa City - with a large university community to support it - is heavily subsidized by contributions beyond ticket sales. "We're probably running 50, 55 percent earned income," said Ron Clark, the theatre's co-founder and co-artistic director. And that's a company that's filling 95 percent of its 118 seats this season.

"You need a bucket of money ... if you want to keep the theatre as a business, and keep it afloat," Hayz said. If a company wants to produce less-mainstream theatre, it will have difficulty drawing enough of an audience to pay the bills, he said. And beyond cash, putting on productions requires time and dedication.

Riverside's indoor season of cutting-edge fare is in part subsidized by the outdoor summer Shakespeare festival, which will be in its third year in 2002.

The festival and strong community support have allowed the theatre to draw better talent. For the theatre's first 15 years or so, most of the actors and directors were local, Clark said. "We've started using more and more talent from a wider pool," he said of the past five years. The director of Riverside's current production Spinning into Butter - Bruce Levitt - is the director of theatre at Cornell University, and the production features an equity actor from New York.

Clark said the audience is also coming from farther away, including "more and more" from the Quad Cities. "We do a different kind of fare" than Quad Cities theatre companies such as Circa '21, the Quad-City Music Guild, and Playcrafters Barn Theatre, Clark said. "It's what I call 'undeniable theatre'" - a reflection of both the choice of material and the intimacy of the venue, in which no audience member is more than 20 feet away from the stage. "We feel we have a real good connection with our audience," he said.

It's a cosmopolitan audience that travels a lot, apparently, and sees much theatre around the country. When Riverside performed Art last year, "audience members would say, 'I saw that play in Chicago'; 'I saw that play in New York'; 'I saw that play in London.'"

Riverside is currently staging Spinning into Butter [See sidebar review.] and has built a reputation on doing challenging works, including How I Learned to Drive three years ago.

These are plays that are often confrontational; people looking for a night of light entertainment should probably go elsewhere. Audiences at places such as Riverside are looking for meat more than a dessert that goes down easily.

Spinning into Butter is a "comedy of manners" set at a college and "deals very boldly with racism," Clark said. The plot concerns an administrator and "how she finds herself on the wrong side of where she wants to be." But it also forces the audience to reflect, he added. "The play demands that you look at your own racist tendencies," he noted. "When the Goodman [Theatre in Chicago] did it, they had people wanting to stick around to talk about it every night."

That makes it similar to David Mamet's Oleanna, which concerns sexual harassment in an academic setting. (St. Ambrose tackled that play last year.) And How I Learned to Drive, which creates three-dimensional characters and doesn't offer easy villains. "It's something that needs to be talked about," Johnson said.

The play doesn't feature any kissing, and there's only one instance of touching, Johnson said. "It's the storyline that's disturbing, and it has to be disturbing for the play to work," she said.

St. Ambrose is familiar with difficult plays. In 1998, the university produced Sam Shepard's Pulitzer Prize-winning Buried Child, a rural drama swirling around a deep family secret - incest.

Of course, both St. Ambrose and Augustana are religious-affiliated schools, but that hasn't resulted in theatre departments shying away from controversial material.

"The administration is aware" of the plays that are chosen, Johnson said, "but they're very supportive."

Coussens struck a similar note. "We've never encountered any kind of censorship," he said. "We try to make sure we select a season that's in good taste. We're very self-governing."

Coussens said that although the theatre department hasn't done How I Learned to Drive, "we've talked about it before." The problems with the play aren't related to content but logistics, he said. With its small cast and its character age range, he noted, "it has not seemed like a good fit." While St. Ambrose holds open auditions for its theatre productions, Augustana works use students only. "Our first concern is addressing student needs," he said, "and our second concern is audience development."

That does not necessarily mean drawing a large number of people. Augustana's theatre seats barely more than 150 people, and "we don't have any trouble filling seats," Coussens said.

The Augustana season features three productions under a single theme, this year's being "A Woman's Place." The slate includes the musical A ... My Name Is Alice, Henrick Ibsen's A Doll's House (performed February 1 to 9), and Christopher Hampton's Les Liaisons Dangereuses (April 26 to May 4). Coussens noted that the theme manifests itself in personal - rather than political - ways. The season looks at the social place of women in three different time periods: Victorian times, the 1800s, and in the late 20th Century.

The theme was also a function of the students the department has available. "We have a deep bench of women" this academic year, he said, "and a very shallow bench for men."

The theme for last year's theatre schedule was a bit more in-your-face - "Satirizing the Sacred" - and featured Noel Coward's The Marriage of Bette & Boo, which some people interpret as Catholic-bashing. But if this year's trio or productions isn't quite as confrontational, it's still somewhat edgy; A ... My Name Is Alice featured adult themes.

And for fans of nonmainstream theatre in the Quad Cities, the more-controversial efforts that come from local colleges and universities are rare treats. Both Coussens and Johnson said they hoped that a less-conventional theatre could survive in this market, but they didn't seem confident.

Coussens cited the Unsafe Ensemble as one example of a local effort at more-experimental theatre, and Johnson mentioned ETC, which closed shop a few years ago because "they couldn't get anybody to come to their shows," she said.

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